Category Archives: cancer wards

Black comedy in the ward

Like something from Hancock's Half Hour, only blacker

Like something from Hancock’s Half Hour, only darker

Once as a medical student, writes Dalrymple,

I was deputed by a hospital consultant to tell a family that their loved one was dying of lung cancer.

The imparting of such information was not regarded by the consultant as very important,

indeed he thought it almost a distraction from the serious business of curative medicine.

Without any guidance as to how to do it, Dalrymple told the family

in a very straightforward way, not because of any commitment to honesty but because I could think of no other.

To Dalrymple’s horror,

one of the relatives was very hard of hearing, so I had to raise my voice to so high a volume that my voice echoed round the ward. It would have been comical if it had not been so appalling.

In any case, the dying patient might have guessed that he was in a bad way because,

when the medical notes were put out at the end of the bed before the consultant’s ward round, those that contained a diagnosis of cancer were left out. In other words, if you were lying in bed and the notes failed to appear at the end of your bed, you knew the diagnosis was bad, despite the doctor’s assurance that it was ‘just a little ulcer’ in your lung or your bowel.

Shameful, degrading, awful, appalling

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 09.28.06The unnameable

Dalrymple writes that on one of the wards in which he worked as a young doctor, there was

a strange ritual. Before the chief did his rounds, the medical notes of all the patients would be put out on their bed tables, ready for him to consult – except those of the patients with cancer. They were not the only patients on the ward with potentially fatal conditions, of course; but cancer was regarded as a disease so awful, with an outcome inevitably so degrading, that it shamed the patient and doctor alike, and therefore could not be named or referred to. Cancer was held in a peculiar kind of appalled awe.